By Ali Hussein Bakeer
Seven of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups announced their merger into a new entity called the “Islamic Front” in a video shown on Al Jazeera television last Friday.
The new entity, emerging a few days after the Assad regime assassinated rebel leader Abdul Qader Saleh, contains several different militant Islamist orientations, though Salafists predominate. Saleh, a moderate Islamist and the popular leader of Al-Tawhid brigade, was supposed to be appointed military leader of this new Islamic Front.
These groups have long been in cooperation with each other and, contrary to reports, will likely shed their own formations in favor of a single, unified command structure in the coming three months. This structure is expected to absorb other groups later. The Front has also stated its intention to unify all of its humanitarian, media, administrative efforts into one body during that time. In its statement, the Islamic front, which includes Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, al-Haq Brigades, Ansar al-Sham, the Army of Islam, and the Kurdish Islamic Front declared itself to be the “independent political, social, and military front seeking to topple the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state”.
While the first goal is something welcomed by all political and military opposition factions, the latter goal is a cause of division. Many opposition groups and entities believe that no one group, regardless of its size and power, has the right or ability to decide Syria’s future. Such a determination, the line of argument goes, is something that should be left to the Syrian people through elected representatives in a parliament.
However, no one in the Syrian opposition outside or inside Syria is willing to focus on this issue right now. Their task of the moment is to topple the regime, and that is the Islamic Front’s first goal.
The merger came as response to the rising danger from the resurgent Assad’s regime which is believed to be making tactical but still important progress in Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo.
It is also believed that the creation of the Islamic front is a logical outcome of the great frustration and deep distrust the Syrian military opposition and Syrian people had experienced with the U.S. and the Friends of Syria, who had promised a lot and delivered nothing capable of changing the status quo.
Some of the most prominent leaders of the Front were in fact members of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA. These leaders are thought to have changed tack after waiting so long for the overwhelming military support that never came. To many in Syria, the U.S.–Russia chemical deal was a clear indication of a U.S. policy to rehabilitate the Assad regime or at least give it enough breathing room to sustain itself until the end of Assad’s term in July 2014. This perception has caused the military opposition to lose any hope that the U.S. would come to its aid. In its statement, the Islamic Front was very forthcoming with its Islamic orientation. The purpose of this announcement was threefold:
1) To remove (or at least contest) the Islamic card of their competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
2) To ensure the flow of money from individual donors outside Syria that would want to donate to a clearly-identified entity.
3) To provide a Sunni answer to the explicitly sectarian Hezbollah.
Some sources estimate that the Front commands between 45,000 and 50,000 fighters, certainly making it a substantial power in the internal struggle against Assad. The formation of the Front will be encouraging for some and is expected to result in a renewed intensity in rebel operations across many key parts of the country.
The new Islamic front will have many serious challenges, among them, a need for a continuous and sustainable supply of arms. It remains unknown whether a country will commit to supplying the Front. The other challenge is the many adversaries, like the ISIS and the PYD, that have emerged lately. Fighting both the Assad-Hezbollah axis and these groups could be draining for the Islamic Front. Moreover, while Assad and Hezbollah enjoy open financial, political, and military support from Iran, the Islamic Front’s support will be spotty, forcing it to face the Assad axis with its back uncovered.